A marinade is a seasoned liquid in which meat is soaked before (and sometimes after) cooking. The herbs, spices, and flavorings in a marinade can seem so enticing—in fact, you may even choose a recipe based on what’s in the soaking liquid.
But in reality, very few seasonings make it to the center of meat—and most need help even flavoring the exterior. Furthermore, a great marinade doesn’t just season food. It also increases juiciness and helps with browning.
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So to get the most out of your marinade, it's important to use ingredients that will give you the most bang for your buck. The following trio of marinade superheroes–all pantry staples–are musts in any soaking liquid.
The Three Ingredients Every Marinade Needs
Salt in a marinade affects meat in four ways. It restructures the protein molecules, creating gaps that fill with water to increase juiciness. It also loosens the bundles of muscle fibers, making them more tender and easier to bite through and chew. Salt also travels far into the meat, enhancing its inherent flavors. Finally, while the salt is doing its work, osmosis causes water to move across cell walls from areas with a lower concentration of dissolved substances (the marinade) into areas of higher concentration (the meat).
To capitalize on these effects, include a high concentration of salt in your marinades, about 1 1/2 teaspoons per 3 tablespoons of liquid. (We often refer to soaking liquids that not only contain lots of seasonings but also lots of salt as "brinerades.")
Sweeteners like sugar and honey not only add complexity to marinades, they also help foods brown during cooking, further developing flavor.
Garlic, as well as most of the herbs and spices that we add to marinades, is oil-soluble, which means it only release its full flavor when mixed in oil. Oil also helps seasonings cling to the surface of meat. So, to get the most out of a marinade, always include oil. But note: These flavors will merely coat, not penetrate, the meat. Meat proteins are saturated with water, so they won't absorb the oil or its flavors.